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Israel's Barak postpones U.S. visit as violence escalates

Prime Minister Ehud Barak late Saturday delayed a planned trip to Washington for a meeting with President Clinton because of continued violence in southern Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.

In a statement released by his office, Barak said the trip was being postponed, but gave no alternate date. Barak's spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky, said it was unlikely the prime minister would be able to travel later in the week.

The announcement followed a late night security Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv.

In towns around the Palestinian areas, thousands of demonstrators threw stones at police and were met with a hail of rubber-coated steel bullets. More than 100 injuries were reported in all. Two cameramen from the Reuters news agency were injured by the rubber-coated bullets, one in the Gaza Strip and the other in the divided West Bank town of Hebron.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, clashes escalated after it was announced that a Palestinian man who was shot in the head by Israeli army gunfire on Friday had died. Doctors identified the victim as 28-year-old Issa Abed, a cafeteria worker at nearby Bir Zeit University.

By Saturday evening, the shops and restaurants of Ramallah had shut down as the town began an official mourning for Abed. His death brought to four the number of Palestinians killed in a week of clashes, including several gunbattles.

The violence comes as Israel and the Palestinians are working on a final peace treaty to settle long-standing issues like the nature of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians insist that refugees who fled Israel when it was created in 1948 have the right to return.

The sides have set a September deadline for a final treaty, but negotiations have progressed slowly.

Beginning last Sunday, Palestinians took to the streets to press demands for the release of 1,650 prisoners held by Israel for anti-Israeli attacks. On Monday, Palestinian police and civilian activists of Arafat's party opened fire on Israeli soldiers. Palestinian activists declared Friday and Saturday "days of rage" to draw attention to the prisoner issue.

Barak has threatened to delay an upcoming Israeli withdrawal from three West Bank villages next to Jerusalem if the violence is not immediately curtailed.

Meanwhile, that violence continued unabated. In Hebron, about 1,500 demonstrators marched toward an Israeli army checkpoint at the entrance to the Israeli-controlled downtown area Saturday. Palestinian police did not intervene. Standing on rooftops and behind cement blocks, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets at hundreds of stone throwers.

Twirling a slingshot, Ahmed Qawasmeh, 22, said he has a brother in jail and would do whatever he can to win his release.

"We were waiting for this moment to show our anger and our disappointment over the peace process," he said.

In southern and eastern Lebanon on Saturday, Israeli airstrikes and guerrilla shelling caused power outages in border communities.

Israel's air force struck suspected guerrilla infiltration trails at four different locations along the front line, as guerrillas _ who have pledged to drive the Israelis out in humiliation _ launched a series of attacks.

Jets also struck deep inside Lebanon, targeting a base for Syrian-backed radical Palestinian guerrillas near the Syrian border, Lebanese and Israeli officials said.